December 2016 Newsletter from Srivatsa Ramaswami--Guna Physiology
I am planning to go to India for three months from mid December. During 2017 I have scheduled two main programs . A 100 hour TT Vinyasakrama Yoga program which I will be doing in Chennai (Yogavahini, Feb 2017), Sydney Australia (Yoga Institute, April 2017) and Montreal, Canada (Oneyoga Sep 2017). I will also be doing a 50 hr Bhagavatgita for Yogis program at Chennai (Yogavahini Jan 2017) and Los Angeles (LMU Aug 2017). A couple of shorter programs are also scheduled. A 5 day program of Core Vinyasakrama (Omyoga New Delhi Jan 2017) and a weekend Samkhyakarika program in Chicago (Chicago Yoga Center Sep 2017). For more details
सत्वं लघु प्रकाशकं इष्टं उपष्टम्भकं चकञ्च रजः
गुरुवरणकमेव तमः प्रदीपवच्चार्थतो वृत्तिः
satvaṁ laghu prakāśakaṁ iṣṭaṁ upaṣṭambhakaṁ cakañca rajaḥ
guruvaraṇakameva tamaḥ pradīpavaccārthato vṛttiḥ
The usual way of describing prakriti or universe/nature is by the characterization of the constituent three gunas, satva rajas and tamas. Samkhya, Yoga and Vedanta all subscribe to the three gunas view of the Universe. In Bhagavat Gita the Lord goes to great extent to describe the manifestation of the gunas in different evolutes of prakriti. Iswarakrishna in his immortal work Samkhyakarika describes the gunas succinctly. Satva is lightness or buoyancy at the physical level and clarity or illumination at the mental level. Rajas is excited activity at the physical level and restlessness at the mental level. Tamas though is feeling of heaviness at the physical level and engulfing darkness at the mental level. These three work in unison like a oil lamp or a candle with a wick functions.
The Gita goes into great detail to describe the functioning of the Gunas in various aspects of human activity. I have written about it in an earlier article. The Gita urges everyone to become Rajasic if one is tamasic, then become satwic from being Rajasic and ultimately transcend all the three gunas. The Yoga system helps to achieve this goal systematically, sequentially. By asanas and pranayama according to yogis one can bring both Rajas and Tamas under control and then slowly strengthen the satvic aspect of one’s personality possibly by meditation
The gunas at the physiological level are related to the condition of the nervous system. There are two of them, the central nervous system, and the autonomic nervous system which again is made up of the parasympathetic and then the sympathetic nervous systems. The dominance of one of these systems leads to the preponderance of one of the gunas. The parasympathetic of which the vegas is an important part is usually associated with low energy, phlegmatic, dominance of Kapha dosha and supports tamas. A high tone of this system is known as vegatonia could lead to some functional disorders. It is katabolic. While vegatonia can be reduced by pranayama, many times one finds that the participant is so much low in energy that he or she would not be able to do any form of yoga. So if Tamas is very dominant one would like to increase Rajas so that one can start the process of yoga. Just as Lord Krishna would say ‘become rajasic if you are tamasic, one would do something to get some energy flowing. How to do that?
It is done by improving the tone of the sympathetic nervous system. A low tone of the sympathetic and a high tone of parasympathetic , this imbalance leads to extreme lack of energy and laziness or tamas with disastrous long term consequences. How to improve the tone of the sympathetic?
Yoga comes out with a unique procedure or karani called sirsasana or head stand. If one would stay in sirsasana for a required amount of time, the viscous cerebrospinal fluid slowly empties into the periphery of the brain. There are ventricles or openings in the brain and in the third ventricle in the recess is placed the pituitary gland. In sirsasana, the CSF fills this ventricle and exerts some pressure on the gland which helps to slightly increase its hormone secretion. It empties into the surrounding CSF. Then when one comes out of the pose, the hormone gets into the circulation and stimulates the adrenal gland. The adrenalin so produced excites and improves the tone of the sympathetic nervous system. This will help to bring in some rajas and energy to the yagabhyasi. So if one is extremely tamasic such people will lack the energy and motivation to do pranayama to remove tamas. When I was studying with Sri Krishnmacharya, for a period of time I used to go for my asana classes in the evening after work. I used to feel tired especially in the hot humid Madras conditions. If he sees me very tired he would ask me first thing after the prayer to stay in headstand for a while. It used to be very relaxing for the whole body, the joints and the tired muscles. At the end of the sirsasana practice one would feel relaxed and little more energetic and can go on to do the asanas and vinyasas.
But then there are some who have high sympathetic tone or what you may call Rajasic or pitta dominated. Such people will have to use up the extra energy and asanas in general are supposed to help in reducing or utilizing the extra energy.
‘Asanena rajo hanti says an Upanishad‘. There is another important asana which will help in reducing the rajas by improving the tone of the parasympathetic of which the vegas is an important part. The vegal nerve emanates from the occipital region of the brain The back portion of the brain is on the ground in Sarvangasana and the CSF is supposed to empty into the fourth ventricle which is in the occipital region and stimulates the vegas nuclii. So a proper balance between Sirsasana and sarvangasana would bring about the required equilibrium between the sympathetic and the parasympathetic nervous systems or bring about a parity between Rajas and Tamas physiologically.
Ultimately Yoga requires one to improve satva as it is the most desirable quality. The procedure that is used by Yogis to suppress Tamas and simultaneously increase satva is pranayama. Satva indicates a proper functioning of the brain and the central nervous system whereas Rajas and Tamas may be related to the functioning of the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems. It is an ingenious approach of yogis to increase satva or bring the central nervous system under good control. Breathing is usually under involuntary mode. Sympathetic acts during inhalation and the parasympathetic is active during exhalation. So normal breathing is involuntary. The central nervous system consists of the brain and the spinal cord and is responsible for out thinking and all activities we do voluntarily including meditation. In voluntary breathing which is pranayama, the breathing is brought under the central nervous system-- there are two centers of breathing one voluntary and the other involuntary. By doing pranayama, the yogi is able to work with the central nervous system and increase the dominance of satva. Pranayama on one hand helps to reduce tamas and increase satva, as Patanali puts it “ tatah kshiyate prakas aavaranam and dharanasu ca yogtataa manasaH”
So Tamas Rajas and Satva dominate the three nervous systems the parasympathetic, the sympathetic and the central nervous system. And the Hatayogis bring about the required changes of the gunas by manipulating the tone of the three systems by unique yogic procedures of Sarvangasana Sirsasana and Pranayama.